What can Korea do?The chorus of voices predicting a clash between China and the United States in East Asia has been growing. Prof, Graham Allison of Harvard warns of the “Thucydidean Trap” in which rising powers inevitably fight with status quo powers. Robert Blackwell and Ashley Tellis recently produced a widely cited Council on Foreign Relations report that advocated a neo-containment strategy with China, including the imposition of economic sanctions. With a U.S. Presidential election gearing-up, the “China threat” could emerge as a central theme in American political discourse.
How bad could U.S.-China tensions get? We may know more when senior cabinet members from the United States and China gather in Washington next week for the regular U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED). The S&ED will set the stage for the coming months as both governments prepare for the visit of President Xi Jinping to Washington in September. So far, a plurality of Americans in polls say that they see China as more of a partner than an adversary and Xi Jinping has eschewed the anti-American rhetoric that has crept into China’s leading media outlets.
On the other hand, the coalition that held together U.S.-China relations since Nixon first visited China in 1971 is showing serious signs of strain. Xi has openly called for a security system in Asia that is dominated by Asians and has no “blocs” - by which he clearly means U.S. alliances. On the U.S. side, the business community, which once maintained strong support for positive relations with China, has splintered as executives grow tired of Chinese cyber theft and nontariff barriers. Experts in both countries say the post-Nixon pattern of win-win relations between Beijing and Washington has never been in greater peril.
The upcoming U.S.-China summitry therefore merits close attention. Here are three key issues to watch.
The confrontation in the South China Sea: China’s project to reclaim land on contested atolls and underwater features in the South China Sea and then cover them with runways and port facilities capable of hosting a variety of PLA military planes and ships came as a shock to Washington and the region. The Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command called it the “Great Wall of Sand” and sought White House permission to conduct a Freedom of Navigation (FON) exercise in May to demonstrate the U.S. Navy would not recognize the new features as impediments to maritime access to the region. His ships apparently were not authorized by Washington to enter the 12-nautical-mile exclusion claimed by Beijing - as many experts advocated - but he did send a P-8 Patrol Plane very nearby with a CNN crew on board to show the seriousness of the issue. Defense Secretary Ash Carter also called on China to reverse its massive land reclamation projects.
That will not happen, but Beijing did announce on June 16 that it was “finished” with the reclamation on what it called China’s sovereign territory. That could be a temporary pause until the S&ED and Xi’s visit are over, in which case U.S.-China tensions are certain to rise later in the year, particularly if PLA military equipment is deployed on the islands. Or it is possible that Beijing could agree at the S&ED or during the Xi visit to halt land reclamation, construction and any deployments of military assets. That would help to lower tensions even if it did not resolve the underlying problem.
Cyber. Anyone who has worked at a security-oriented think tank, human rights NGO, or government office in Washington has experienced cyberattacks sourced by experts to China. However, the most recent report that Chinese hackers downloaded the security background information of millions of American officials has been eye-popping. China’s security services use mass rather than finesse, and the result is constant damage to U.S.-China political relations. Beijing halted its cyber dialogue with the U.S. government after the U.S. Justice Department indicted five Chinese officials for cybercrime in May. If Beijing refuses to respond to American concerns over cyber during the S&ED and Xi visits, then the issue will become a major theme for Presidential candidates and calls for a tougher stance towards China will mount.
China’s New NGO Law. Beijing is about to promulgate a new law requiring nongovernmental organizations to register with the security services and be subjected to monitoring so intrusive that many of these organizations will be unable to operate in China. This new draconian law would also apply to foreign chambers of commerce. Under Xi, China has cracked down on all forms of dissent, but this new law makes enemies of the very international business organizations and charitable foundations that have been China’s greatest advocates abroad. Implementation of the new law would demonstrate a level of disinterest in Western images of China that is alarming, but perhaps at the S&ED and the September Xi visit to Washington the Chinese leaders might be dissuaded.
What can Korea do? Any deterioration in U.S.-China relations is usually bad for Korea, but it is counterproductive for Seoul to seek some equidistant position between Washington and Beijing on issues like human rights, territorial disputes, or THAAD. What looks in Seoul like strategic ambiguity often looks in Beijing like a weakening of Korea’s commitment to the open regional order underpinned by rule of law and the American system of alliances. This point will come as a shock to Korean officials who rightly point out that Seoul has the most pro-U.S. stance in Asia, backed by very positive Korean public opinion polls about the United States (reciprocated in U.S. polls). But compared with the growing alarm in Australia, Japan and much of Southeast Asia, Korea’s cautious stance with respect to growing Chinese assertiveness stands out. When Korea appears to be a wildcard, great power relations in Asia rarely stabilize.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green